Way back in the ’70’s, I had my first opportunity to really use computers. They were the mainframes the college had, and they were huge things, taking up an entire room by themselves. I had to use them for courses, and it wasn’t “easy.” Many of the things that people today take for granted didn’t exist, or, if they did, were cumbersome, expensive, and difficult. It was the province of science fiction to think of small, hand-held computers and communication devices. These days, not only do all those things exist, they’re commonplace. People carry around a small, lightweight device which places them in communication with the world, takes pictures, and even can tell them where they are. Computers far and away more powerful than the mainframes I used in the ’70’s are now being carried around, and they’re ubiquitous in classrooms. People talk a lot about technology literacy, and work to ensure that schools teach children how to use it. The problem I have? It doesn’t seem to have made people any smarter.
It’s discouraging in many ways. People have been given the tools to be able to tap vast realms of knowledge, to make their lives easier, but using that technology intelligently seems to have fallen by the wayside. There was a story last year in the NY Times about technology leading park visitors into trouble.
But today, as an ever more wired and interconnected public visits the parks in rising numbers — July was a record month for visitors at Yellowstone — rangers say that technology often figures into such mishaps.
People with cellphones call rangers from mountaintops to request refreshments or a guide; in Jackson Hole, Wyo., one lost hiker even asked for hot chocolate.
“Because of having that electronic device, people have an expectation that they can do something stupid and be rescued,” said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
It happens a lot in my area of the country. People assume that the technology will work, that it will save them. Instead, it often puts them into danger. Why? Because they didn’t think anything else was necessary, or they relied on it when they shouldn’t have. But it’s not just when it comes to the wilderness that people fail when it comes to technology.
Remember in the opening paragraph I said I was in college in the ’70’s? Those were good times. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and the drinking age was 18. We did a lot of stupid things because we were young, and many of them involved excessive consumption of alcohol. Every now and then there were pictures of it. We had a technology called “a Polaroid camera,” which enabled us to take pictures of people being stupid, or pranked when they’d passed out. It turns out that even though the drinking age is now 21, college students aren’t all that much different from when I was in college. I know this because there’s a site called After 12. Which consists of pictures of students passed out, vomiting, pranked while passed out, or doing something else incredibly stupid.
The difference is that when I was in college, the only people who saw a picture like that were the people in your dorm, and that picture was (hopefully) destroyed by the end of the semester. These days, most cellphones have a camera in them, the ability to connect to the Internet, and most young people have one. So the technology not only enables someone to take a picture of their fellow students being stupid, but to put it where it’s likely to be seen by the world. Forever. Which may – and has, in some instances – come back to haunt those young people later on in life. Which is not “technology smart.” It’s not that they’re being a lot smarter than we were in their social life, or that they don’t know how to use the technology they have. It’s that they’re not thinking in terms of “this is a bad thing” when using it.
Technology has come a long way since I first sat in front of a computer terminal. People are far more comfortable with technology, and today’s youth knows how to use it. The problem is that people need to remember that it’s not just being able to use the technology. It’s that they need to know how to use it appropriately, and remember that it is no substitute for using your own brain. Being technology literate does not make you technology smart. It can often make you dumb.